Thirty years ago: The semantic map for indefinite pronoun uses

The cold January of 1993 was the period during which I worked most intensively on my dissertation (at Freie Universität Berlin), a typological study of indefinite pronouns. I was living in a one-room apartment in the basement of Marthastraße 5 (Berlin Lichterfelde West), and had few distractions – thankfully, no teaching duties, and relatively light duties (during these winter months) in my part-time job as project assistant to EUROTYP project director Ekkehard König (who was also my PhD advisor).

Like many PhD students, I was hoping or dreaming that my dissertation would not only be a solid piece of scientific work, but also have an impact, and improbably, this dream came true in the full sense: Even though my dissertation was defended three decades ago (in the summer of 1993), and the book came out in 1997 (now available in open access), it is still being cited, and people are still trying to make sense of some of the generalizations that I hypothesized – especially the coexpression diagram (“implicational map”), which was highlighted by Croft (2003) and became an object of formal mathematical analysis in Croft & Poole (2008) and Regier et al. (2013). Among recent papers are Aloni & Degano (2022) and Denić et al. (2022). The following picture is from Aloni & Degano, who replaced my coexpression line with a more beautiful green space.

So how did I come up with this map three decades ago? I do not remember the details, but since around 1987 I often thought about a possible dissertation topic, and for quite a while, I considered a typological study of complement clause types (Givón 1980 had made a very strong impression on me). But then I hit upon the topic of indefinite pronouns, inspired by the discussion of Russian indefinite pronouns in Dahl (1970), and I wrote my M.A. thesis on Slavic indefinites in 1989, as a kind of preliminary case study for my planned typological dissertation. While mostly working on my grammar of Lezgian during my 1989-90 stay at MGU in Moscow, I already had my future dissertation in mind – and I was happy to come across Pilka’s 1984 Vilnius dissertation on Lithuanian indefinite pronouns writtennin Russian (which was later cited prominently on pp. 39-50 of my book).

But in 1990, I experienced a shock, when I found von Bremen’s (1983) Stockholm dissertation on the various uses of question words, which covered much of what I wanted to say in my dissertation. So should I switch back to complement clauses after all? That seemed a topic of daunting dimensions, so after a few weeks, and after thinking more about the contributions I could make, I decided to stick with indefinite pronouns. In the spring of 1991, I gave a first conference talk about my dissertation topic, at a Duisburg conference on reference in cognitive linguistics, where I met not only Ronald Langacker, but also other colleagues such as Ursula Doleschal and Vera Podlesskaya. “Cognitive linguistics” was a new and dynamic approach at the time, and it was encouraging to have a community of colleagues who seemed interested in my work. (It must be recalled that this was before the foundation of the Association for Linguistic Typology in 1995, when “typology” did not have an established community yet.) Some of the papers from the conference appeared in 1995 (Geiger (ed.) 1995), with my paper in it that already contained the semantic map of 1993/1997 in an earlier form.

So how did I arrive at that semantic map? I had been thinking about multifunctionality of grammatical markers in terms of semantic maps since 1987, when I wrote a first paper on anticausative markers (while I was an M.A. student). I came up with the following semantic map, published in a working paper of the University of Cologne:

I had read Joan Bybee’s 1985 book Morphology very carefully, where on p. 195-196 she advocated the semantic-map approach (although she did not propose any semantic maps herself), in the following passage:

Thus, when I started thinking about the way in which the Russian kto-to/kto-nibud’ contrast differs from the English someone/anyone contrast, and how they differ from Lithuanian, from German (jemand/irgend-jemand), from Japanese (dare-ka/dare-mo), and so on, the semantic-map approach seemed a natural choice.

Most of the discussions of referential distinctions and free-choice indefinites were happening in various formal-semantics frameworks, which adopted very different formalisms for expressing their generalizations. I was not comfortable with them, and as they seemed to be concerned primarily with real-world truth (whereas I was interested in cognitive semantics along the lines of Jackendoff 1983), I hoped that I was not overlooking something crucial by leaving thes approaches aside. The question of how to approach the meanings of human languages seems to be as unresolved now as it was then, so in hindsight it was a good choice to focus on cross-linguistic comparison using my own comparative concepts and a novel typological method (semantic maps) which was not well-known yet but provided a good way of showing the cross-linguistic differences and summarizing the implicational universals. (I called my semantic map an implicational map, which was probably a term invented by me, as a hybrid from Greenberg’s “implicational universals” and Anderson’s/Bybee’s “semantic maps”.)

In the summer of 1991, I took part as a doctoral student in the LSA Linguistic Institute (summer school) in Santa Cruz (California), where Barbara Partee was teaching a class on the cross-linguistic study of quantification, on the basis of her formal semantic framework. I struggled to understand exactly what she was doing with her formalism, and how the quantifiers in logic related to quantities as understood in ordinary language and usually in linguistics. (After all, an indefinite nominal such as a dog is not an expression of a quantity, even though logicians would use an “existential quantifier” here.) From my non-logical/non-mathematical perspective, indefinites like someone or anything were primarily pronouns, similar to interrogative pronouns, and not “quantifiers”. But despite this, Barbara Partee liked my term paper written for that class and invited me to publish it in a volume on cross-linguistic quantification edited by herself with other colleagues (Bach et al. (eds) 1995). That was very generous, and I realized that formal semanticists like Partee were not ideological about their formalisms – and the early 1990s were a time when cross-linguistic approaches became more and more prestigious in formal linguistics. The “endangered languages” concerns began a bit later (from 1992 onward), but the “English-only” approaches of the 1960s and 1970s were already becoming less relevant. My PhD supervisor Ekkehard König was trained as a specialist of English and formal semantics, and I was working in the FU Berlin’s English department, but he strongly encouraged my cross-linguistic work even though it did not have a formal-semantics component.

Thus, my semantic-map work was available at the right time, and I was around at the right places (not only in Europe, but able to travel to North America every few years), and I got to know the right people (such as Bill Croft, who popularized my semantic map for indefinites in his 2003 book on typology and universals, as well as in Croft & Poole 2008). It was not really my idea, but I applied a pre-exising concept to a novel set of data in a way that convinced many people, and when Michael Tomasello (then my colleague at MPI-EVA in Leipzig) invited me to contribute a chapter to a book on “cognitive-functional linguistics” that he was editing (Tomasello (ed.) 2003), I used this opportunity to write a general chapter on semantic maps. It is good to see work in this tradition thriving nowadays, as is also witnessed by the recent special issue of Zeitschrift für Sprachwissenschaft on semantic maps, edited by Thanasis Georgakopoulos and Stéphane Polis.


Aloni, Maria & Degano, Marco. 2022. (Non-)specificity across languages: Constancy, variation, v-variation. Semantics and Linguistic Theory 1(0). 185–205. (doi:10.3765/salt.v1i0.5337)

Anderson, Lloyd B. 1982. The “perfect” as a universal and as a language-particular category. In Hopper, Paul J. (ed.), Tense-aspect: Between semantics and pragmatics, 227–264. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Bach, Emmon & Jelinek, Eloise & Kratzer, Angelika & Partee, Barbara H. (eds.). 1995. Quantification in natural languages. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Bybee, Joan L. 1985. Morphology: A study of the relation between meaning and form. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

Croft, William & Poole, Keith. 2008. Multidimensional scaling and other techniques for uncovering universals. Theoretical Linguistics 34(1). 75–84.

Dahl, Östen. 1970. Some notes on indefinites. Language 46(1). 33–41. (doi:10.2307/412405)

Denić, Milica & Steinert-Threlkeld, Shane & Szymanik, Jakub. 2022. Indefinite pronouns optimize the simplicity/informativeness trade-off. LingBuzz. (

Geiger, Richard A. (ed.). 1995. Reference in multidisciplinary perspective: Philosophical object, cognitive subject, intersubjective process. Hildesheim: Olms. (doi:10.5281/zenodo.6054566) (

Givón, T. 1980. The binding hierarchy and the typology of complements. Studies in Language 4(3). 333–377. (doi:10.1075/sl.4.3.03giv)

Haspelmath, Martin. 1987. Transitivity alternations of the anticausative type (Arbeitspapiere Des Instituts Für Sprachwissenschaft N.F. Nr. 4). Cologne: Universität zu Köln. (

Haspelmath, Martin. 1995a. Diachronic sources of “all” and “every.” In Bach, Emmon & Jelinek, Eloise & Kratzer, Angelika & Partee, Barbara H. (eds.), Quantification in natural languages, 363–382. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers. (doi:10.1007/978-94-017-2817-1_12)

Haspelmath, Martin. 1995b. Referential distinctions in indefinite pronouns: A typological perspective. In Geiger, Richard A. (ed.), Reference in multidisciplinary perspective: Philosophical object, cognitive subject, intersubjective process, 626–647. Hildesheim: Olms. (doi:10.5281/zenodo.6054566) (

Haspelmath, Martin. 1997. Indefinite pronouns. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (

Haspelmath, Martin. 2003. The geometry of grammatical meaning: Semantic maps and crosslinguistic comparison. In Tomasello, Michael (ed.), The New Psychology of Language, volume 2, 211–243. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum. (10.5281/zenodo.831410)

Jackendoff, Ray. 1983. Semantics and cognition. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

Pilka, Alfonsas. 1984. Neopredelennye determinativy litovskogo jazyka (v sopostavlenii s anglijskim). Vilnius: Vilnius State University. (Candidate’s dissertation.)

Regier, Terry & Khetarpal, Naveen & Majid, Asifa. 2013. Inferring semantic maps. Linguistic Typology. De Gruyter Mouton 17(1). 89–105. (doi:10.1515/lity-2013-0003)

Tomasello, Michael (ed.). 2003. The New Psychology of Language, volume 2. New York: Lawrence Erlbaum. (10.5281/zenodo.831410)

von Bremen, Klaus. 1983. Question-words: A study in the syntax of relativization, free relatives, pseudo-cleft sentences and certain indefinite pronouns. Stockholm University. (PhD dissertation.) (

Cite this blog post
Martin Haspelmath (2023, January 22). Thirty years ago: The semantic map for indefinite pronoun uses. Diversity Linguistics Comment. Retrieved June 13, 2024, from

One thought on “Thirty years ago: The semantic map for indefinite pronoun uses

  1. Thank you for the incredibly interesting blogpost!
    This is exactly what I wanted to know: how did you write such a great Ph.D dissertation.
    I am living very close to where you lived!

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